CMSI in 2017: New Projects, New Collaborators, Renewed Energy

by Caty Borum Chattoo

It’s a fresh new year, and we’re ready for it.

As we look back on the past few years and think about the future, we are both daunted and inspired by the challenges ahead. At such a moment, it occurred to us that so many transformative works usually begin – or renew themselves – with a kind of vision manifesto. So, we wrote one: 

The evolution of the Internet Age has transformed virtually every aspect of contemporary life. The digital era has revolutionized the meaning of civic engagement, reconfigured how we learn, shifted power dynamics of social change, changed the role of information gatekeepers, and fundamentally altered the pathways of social norms that connect cultures and communities.

What is unchanged is the powerful influence of mediated information and entertainment on what we know and believe, what we value and disdain. And yet, what has changed may be the extent to which we understand how deeply and precisely contemporary media and storytelling shape our personal opinions and perspectives, our cultural values, and the formal policies and rules that govern some of the most pressing social issues of our day. Work and play, amusement and information, news and entertainment have converged across platforms into an unprecedented supply of facts, values, stories and opinions that comprise contemporary life.

Simultaneously, demographic and socioeconomic chasms grow wider. Paradoxically, we live in a time characterized by increased racial diversity, but decreased socioeconomic diversity. Social justice – the right of all people to live meaningful, productive, healthy lives – is shaped by policy and public opinion, in turn cultivated by stories and information shared via entertainment, journalism, games, interactive and virtual reality, social media, and documentary storytelling. Audiences consume contemporary media and storytelling in converged spaces, on laptops and mobile devices and wearable media. They experience a diverse ecology of influence, and meaning comes from a range of sources over time. In the same fashion, the study and development of contemporary media influence should be revolutionized in parallel lines – explicitly moving across boundaries of medium and discipline to understand more precisely how individuals and social issues are affected.

To chronicle the transformation, the Center for Media & Social Impact works intentionally within – and at the intersections between – media, storytelling and social justice.

Our objective is to work within this mission. As we look back on 2016 and look forward to 2017 and beyond, here are a few highlights:

Story Movements, focused on story-led movements for social change: Our expanded convening and case study publication will be out in February. It’s not only a wrap-up of what you missed if you couldn’t make it, but it provides a deeper dive into the remarkable featured projects and speakers for our inaugural convening. And even better, we’ve received generous funding from the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms program to continue to curate, analyze and spotlight this work. Look for our editorial series in 2017 (and let us know which movements and films and projects interest you the most so we can cover them!). Also, please check out our conference speaker videos and Story Movements highlights video.

When Movies Come to Washington: Documentary Films & Public Policy in the United States: The first report in our two-part series focused on the role of documentary films in public policy will be published in February. Written with a filmmaker and advocacy audience in mind, this investigation was co-authored with White House and policy insider Will Jenkins. It includes film case studies, interviews with policy insiders, filmmakers and advocacy groups who have made a policy difference through docs.

The Laughter Effect: The [Serious] Role of Comedy in Social Change: For the past year, we’ve been hard at work on a massive exploration and synthesis of the role of comedy in social change, attempting to answer questions like: How are comedy appeals persuasive in social issues? What should we know in order to leverage comedy for positive social impact? Look for the launch of our project early this spring, with an inaugural report, The Laughter Effect, and a new study that examines Samantha Bee’s impact on an audience. This project includes ongoing collaborations with folks like the Center for Investigative Reporting (look for a study coming soon about Dirty Little Secrets, a collaboration between stand-up comics and investigative journalists). And if you want a preview, watch this talk (“How Poop Jokes Can Save the World”) about the role of comedy in social justice from last year’s Frank conference for social change communicators.

Rise Up Media & Social Change Project @CMSI: We continue to think deeply about the role of entertainment media and storytelling in social change and social justice. That’s why we’re so thrilled to preview our announcement coming soon: We’ve created a partnership project with the Rise Up Social Impact initiative of Univision and Fusion, called the Rise Up Media & Social Change Project @CMSI. Through this effort, we’ll work with entertainment and documentary producers to provide research and story framing for TV and digital projects designed to build awareness and shape behavior around issues of social inequality and health. More details soon.

State of the Documentary Field Study: In September, we published a first-of-its-kind study that examines documentary filmmakers’ lived experiences, challenges, motivations, funding realities – and more – at an evolving moment in the streaming media era. The project is a collaboration with the International Documentary Association (so you may have heard about it at IDA’s Getting Real 2016 conference), and we plan to continue the work bi-annually.

Impact Study for PBS’ Emmy-Award-winning film, The Homestretch: In case you missed it, check out the CMSI study that examines a public policy audience response to the PBS Emmy-Award-winning documentary, The Homestretch. The film spotlights homeless young people in the U.S. public school system, an urgent problem facing millions of teens. This project was the first to examine the use of OVEE, the ITVS synchronous online viewing platform, as a media evaluation platform.

Media That Matters blog: This year, we’re working hard to publish in-depth case studies about our various program areas, looking at examples of media work that’s making a difference, and the people who create it. (Check out, for example, excellent work from our CMSI student fellows on topics such as: why stories are more important than stats in global poverty storytelling, and how Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously is activating audiences in climate change.)

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Fellowship Program: CMSI is thrilled to again sponsor seven graduate students from the School of Communication, along with the Film & Media Arts and Public Communication divisions, to participate in this special fellowship program hosted by the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina (April 6-9). Look for CMSI folks and AU School of Communication students there in a few months.

We’ll also continue our efforts to examine diversity in public media and documentaries (check out our 2016 “Docs So White” study, which will be expanded in 2017) – along with the Dangerous Documentaries focus on curating resources for documentarians working in an investigative capacity. Our work in fair use and intellectual property will continue and hopefully expand.

And of course, every new year brings time for reflection. For CMSI, that means tightening up our themes of focus, expanding others, and getting our work out into the world so it can be leveraged by thinkers and doers. Our focused active program themes for the foreseeable future, which you’ll see reflected on our website, are: 

Independent, Documentary & Public Media
CMSI chronicles the crucial issues facing independent, documentary and public media – as well as the dynamic evolution in the contemporary media era.

Media Culture & Impact
Through studies, case studies and other projects, CMSI investigates and reports on narrative change – the ways in which media storytelling sets the public agenda, impacts audiences and shapes the future around the pressing social issues of our time.

Story Movements for Social Change
Across narrative genres, the program examines and captures the current and future-looking moment in story-led demands for social change, with a strong focus on the intersection between social-change agents and strategists with narrative.

Fair Use, Free Speech & Intellectual Property
Copyright issues fundamentally affect the creative choices media makers believe they can make. As part of its mission to provide educational support to creatives in media that matters, CMSI develops tools to better understand how to employ fair use, the right to use copyrighted material.

Creative Incubator
CMSI incubates creative media projects that address issues of misrepresentation, identity, and social change, and also produces video explainers to help translate research to practitioners and the public. CMSI’s Community Voice, a community participatory storytelling project that examines Washington, D.C., neighborhoods, is a centerpiece of this work.

Media That Matters Blog
The CMSI blog, Media That Matters, publishes case studies and chronicles the latest news about the intersection of media and societal impact.

To be continued.


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